March 2009

One of a Kind

I talked to Buster Posey’s college coach, Florida State’s Mike Martin, last week. I wanted to know about Posey’s transition to catcher two years ago when he was a sophomore. He had earned All-American honors as a shortstop his freshman year and also pitched. But Martin needed a catcher – someone who could be the leader on the field.

“I thought when he put the gear on for the first time, he’d walk like a duck,” Martin says. He didn’t.

“After three pitches, I said, ‘You got to be kidding me.’ He looked as if he had been catching all his life – the way he could frame a pitch, the way his mitt looked like a pillow, the fact he didn’t snatch at the ball. He looked very polished.”

Not that Martin was surprised.

Posey is one of those kids who seems to have stepped out of the pages of a Hardy Boys novel. Square-jawed, clean-cut, straight A’s, polite, hard working. A finance major, Posey made the President’s List in spring 2007 for his 4.0 GPA, and the Dean’s List in the fall of 2005 and 2007.

When Posey took over as catcher, everything changed, Martin said.

“Best leader I ever had,” he said. “He treated everyone with respect, but if someone needed to be dealt with, Buster dealt with him. We would have never gone to the World Series without him.”

In the NCAA regionals last year, FSU lost its first game and was facing elimination. Over the next four games, Posey batted .500 (8-for-16) with five home runs and 13 RBIs. FSU outscored Florida, Bucknell and Tulane 74-35 to reach the College World Series.

In his final at-bat as a college player, Posey came to bat in the top of the ninth with bases loaded and two outs and FSU behind by three runs. Martin says that one at-bat encapsulates Posey’s disciplined approach to the game.

“He doesn’t chase a single pitch,” Martin said. “He draws a walk – playing the game exactly how it’s supposed to be played. That (at-bat) shows what he is all about – some guys would want to be the hero, but Buster put together a great at-bat and turned it over to the next guy.”

Unfortunately, the next guy grounded out, eliminating FSU from the series.

Posey was such a force at FSU that fans created a song called “Hail to the Buster” and sang it whenever he came to bat. Martin said in 29 years of coaching, he has never seen a player have the impact Posey had.

“There ain’t nobody like Buster Posey,” Martin said. “One of a kind. I’ll never coach another Buster Posey.”

Posey married his high school sweetheart, Kristin, in their hometown of Leesburg, Georgia, in January.

In case you wondered, Posey’s full name is Gerald Dempsey Posey III. His father, known as Demp, was nicknamed Buster as a kid and passed it on to the oldest of his four children.

Pictures from the wedding courtesy of Buster’s aunt, Missy.

Some of the groomsmen (left to right): Jess Posey (brother of the groom), Demp Posey (father of the groom), Buster Posey (groom) and Jack Posey (brother of the groom).

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The bride, Mrs. Kristen Posey:

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Working Hard and Believing

Steve Holm is one heroic moment away from becoming a Hollywood movie. A simple game-saving tag at the plate or game-winning hit in the World Series is the only scene missing from turning Holm’s baseball career into the feel-good movie of the year.

He’s part, Rocky, part Rudy, part Crash Davis.

The script would begin when Holm was five years old and was asked for the first time what he wanted to be when he grew up.

“A baseball player,” he said without hesitation. As the years passed and other boys shifted to more pragmatic ambitions, Holm never changed his answer. He nagged his parents to make the drive from Sacramento to watch Giants and A’s games. He collected baseball cards. To this day, he keeps a Nolan Ryan rookie card in his gun safe.

He played shortstop through Little League, high school and college, choosing schools based solely on their baseball programs. He switched from Sacramento City College to Cosumnes River College to American River College in search of the best coaching and most playing time. When he received invitations from Oral Roberts, Western Kentucky, UNLV and Sacramento State, he chose Oral Roberts, which fielded the best team at the time.

When a pro scout told him he’d have a better shot at making the majors if he switched to catching, he didn’t hesitate. The Giants drafted him in the 17th round in 2001 and turned him over to Kirt Manwaring, the former Giant who is now a catching instructor.

“He taught me to get something out of every bullpen session,” Holm says.

And that’s what he did for most of the next two seasons at Salem-Keizer – catch the bullpen. “If there was a bullpen I caught it,” Holm says. He’d get into a game only if it was a blowout.

Accustomed, as most pro ballplayers are to being one of the best players on their teams, Holm had to swallow his frustration at being one of the worst as he was learning his new position.

“To be a good catcher, you have to do it enough to develop instincts,” Holm says. “You almost have to see it before it happens. And that comes only with repetition.”

Sometime in 2003, he says, after nearly three seasons of pro ball, he became comfortable enough to trust his instincts.

“That allowed me to hit better because I wasn’t so worried all the time about catching,” he says. In 2004, he hit nine home runs in Single A San Jose after hitting just one the previous three seasons.

He was still learning the strategy of calling a game and of adapting to the different personalities of the pitchers. And learn to get better at calling a game. “I didn’t understand early on how to get the most out of every pitcher,” he says.

Still, for as much as he was developing as a catcher, he was stuck at Single A.

Season after season after season.

For six years he played in Single A, with only an 11-game stint in 2005 marking a higher showing.

He didn’t make it to Double A for a full season until he was 27 years old.

“He never even hinted at giving up,” said a childhood friend who played baseball with Holm. “He figured as long as he kept fighting, he’d make it. He is an extremely hard worker. He perseveres. And he has very, very, very high baseball intelligence. He knows the game within the game, and he knew it at an early age. He loves the game. He won’t give it up until someone takes the glove off his hand.”

Holm believed that one day he would be the right place at the right time. That’s how it worked.

Last spring, he was in the right place at the right time.

At the age of 28, on the last day of training camp, only two catchers were left on the Giants roster: Bengie Molina and him.

“Even so, I didn’t count on making the team,” Holm says. “I knew things can happen on the waiver wire, a trade, something. It didn’t sink in until Opening Day against the Dodgers.”

After six years in Single A and one in Double A, suddenly Holm was playing at AT&T Park in front of a ton of friends and family who drove down from Sacramento for most home games.

He peppered Molina with questions, sitting with him between innings to talk strategy. He had one thing going for him from all those years in the minors: He had caught almost all of the homegrown Giants pitchers. He caught Brian Wilson in 2005 in Low A Augusta and in Double A; Tim Lincecum in 2006 in San Jose; Matt Cain in Low A and A; Merkin Valdez in Low A, High A and Double A in 2005; Jonathan Sanchez in Augusta in 2005; and Kevin Correia in Salem in 2002.

As valuable as he was behind the plate as Molina’s backup, he struggled at the plate and was sent back and forth to Triple A through July and August and became the third catcher behind Pablo Sandoval and Molina through September. By season’s end, he had raised his batting average to .262.

With Sandoval playing third, Holm is likely to make the opening day roster again – a long way from those six long years in Single A. But Holm kept working – putting in hours upon hours in the off-season improving his throw to second, for instance – and the most amazing thing happened.

He grew up to be exactly what he dreamed.

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Heroes Meeting Heroes

Elmer was shot in the chest by sniper. Eric was hit by a hundred pieces of shrapnel. Jeromye was hit by a mortar and thrown in the air as high as a palm tree. He walks with a cane and has to rely on his wife to remind him to take his daily doses of painkillers, antidepressants, mood stabilizers and seizure meds. Christopher was blown up by an IED while crossing a bridge and tossed onto the riverbank below. His left arm, crushed in the fall, is strafed with ropey scars.

They and about 25 of their fellow Marines were gathered at Frasher’s restaurant in Scottsdale Saturday night for dinner. Their host: Barry Zito.

Zito flew the wounded Marines in from San Diego, where they are rehabilitating at Balboa Naval Hospital. He put them up in hotels, bought tickets to Giants games and hosted Saturday’s dinner. The group returned to San Diego Sunday.

“Pinch me,” Elmer Ugarte said as he surveyed the dining room packed with maroon-shirted Marines socializing with Randy Winn, Brian Wilson, Jack Taschner, Alex Hinshaw, Matt Cain, Orlando Hudson, Noah Lowry, C.J. Wilson and Zito.

“I can’t call this amazing,” Ugarte said, “because amazing is something you think might happen. Unbelievable is something I thought would never happen.”

The trip was part of Zito’s efforts to ease the recovery of injured troops. He founded Strikeouts for Troops in 2005 and has raised almost $2 million. The idea behind the fund is to give the recovering men and women the comforts of home, largely by providing transportation and housing so loved ones can be nearby.

Zito has recruited nearly 70 fellow ball players to contribute money for every strikeout, home run or RBI.

“All we do is throw a ball around,” said Hinshaw, who attended the dinner with his fianc, Courtney. “They fight for our country and for our freedom. They look up to us but we’re the ones who look up to them.”

Said Wilson, “As baseball players, we represent our city and team. They represent our country.”

Rick Williams of the Marine Corps League of San Diego recalled one of Zito’s several visits to Balboa Naval Hospital.

“Twelve Marines just came back who had literally been blown apart,” Williams said to the crowd when everyone had settled at their tables for dinner. “Barry went from room to room, talked to them and listened to them and looked them in the eye and said, ‘You’re going to be OK.’ He spent 45 minutes with one kid who had lost an arm and a leg and was just devastated. Barry somehow had him laughing.”

He turned to Zito, standing behind him.

“You were raised right, man,” he said. “You were raised right.”

Zito asked each of the Marines to stand and introduce himself. One by one they gave their names, some too emotional to say anything more.

“This reminds us of why we did what we did,” one Marine said in a cracked voice. “It shows all of the Marines that America really cares about them.”

Toward the end of the evening, after Zito thanked his teammates and friends for coming and thanked the Marines for their sacrifice, one soft-spoken Marine with a cane tapped Zito on the shoulder.

“The most important thing you’ve done is to listen to us,” he said. “You make us feel that what we did mattered.”

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A Hard Lesson

It’s easy to forget sometimes that baseball is a business. The players in the clubhouse become friends. You find the one or two or three guys who can be counted on to lift you up, tell you the truth, deliver interesting dinner conversation, listen.

Then in a minute one of those guys is out of your life.

“A lot of guys in here came up to the major leagues just last year,” Rich Aurilia said in the clubhouse before today’s game against the Rockies. “They loved Dave Roberts. This is the first time they’re exposed to the business side of baseball. They didn’t know what to say to Dave. He was one of the clubhouse leaders. He cheered for everyone. He pulled for everybody. It was like, ‘Wow, this really happens in the game.”’

Aurilia and Winn are particularly close to Roberts. They were stunned when Roberts told them on Thursday he had been released. Aurilia, who was signed this year to a minor-league contract, said he figured he was a more likely candidate to be released than Roberts, who had a year left on his Giants contract.

“We lost not just a teammate but a really good friend,” Aurilia said. “Our kids played together. It was hard telling my kids that Cole (Roberts’ eight-year-old son) wasn’t going to be at the games anymore.

“One of the best things about coming back here to play was getting to know Dave and his family. He’s one of those guys who will be a friend long after we stop playing.”

Aurilia, Winn and a few other veteran players took Roberts out to dinner that night.

“Every player wants to go out on his own terms,” Aurilia said, “but almost nobody does.”

In a parting gesture the illustrated why everyone in the organization loved him so much, Roberts sent emails to individual people in the front office – the everyday workers the public never sees. He told them how much he appreciated their friendship and hard work and how much he’ll miss seeing them every day. Let me tell you, few pro athletes make a point of thanking people in an organization that just let them go.

For a great tribute to Dave Roberts, read MLB’s Chris Haft: http://chrishaft.mlblogs.com/archives/2009/03/an_ode_to_dave_roberts.html

Willie and the Kids

Willie Mays has been holding court in the Giants clubhouse for the better part of a week, telling stories and haranguing the players in his distinctive high-pitched voice and colorful language. With his eyeglasses perched across his forehead and a Giants cap high on his head, he sits at a round table just inside the clubhouse door with his right-hand man, Peewee, and a rotating parade of players and reporters and clubhouse guys filling the other seats.

After purposely butchering the pronunciation of Ishikawa’s name and skewering him for not really being Japanese since he was born in the U.S., Mays recalled hitting 18 home runs in one minute in a home run derby in Japan. Among other prizes, he won a Kobe steer.

“What’d you do with him?” Ishikawa asked.

“I sold him!” he said. “I wasn’t gonna bring that sumbitch back with me!”

Ishikawa’s locker is next to the table where Mays sits, as are Fred Lewis’s and Manny Burriss’. All three young players found reasons to be glued to their lockers whenever Mays was around, and they kept up a steady banter. Mays showed Lewis how to grip the ball a little differently to keep throws from tailing off.

One day, Lewis decided to push his luck.

“So, Willie, when are you going to take me to dinner?” he asked.

“Take you? You should be taking me! What are you gonna cook?”

“Some pig leg soup,” Lewis said.

“How’d you cook that?”

“Pot of water, some pig legs, salt and pepper and let it boil.”

Mays winced. “Why don’t you come to my house? I have some pies.”

Burriss, delighted by the whole exchange – and with a clubhouse reputation for consuming more food than a man twice his size — jumped in.

“That’s the magic word! I’m coming!”

Before Mays could change his mind Lewis said, “How about Saturday?”

Ishikawa was invited, too.

The three players set out after the Rockies game Saturday to Mays’ Scottsdale house, after a detour at Lewis’s home to pick up his camera.

This morning, when Burris arrived in the clubhouse, I asked how it went. “Amazing,” he said.

And the food? Steak and chicken and six different pies, he said.

“Are you talking about food again?’ Rich Aurilia said as he walked by.

“I had a piece of three of them,” Burriss said. Apple, potato and oatmeal. (And, no, he had never heard of oatmeal pie, either.)

Maybe Lewis will share a photo. If so, I’ll post it along with his and Ishikawa’s highlights of the night.

Before heading out to Mays’ house on Saturday, Burriss and Lewis met with about 50 Giants fans as part of the team’s “Giants Vacations” package. As the fans ate barbeque in the pavilion beyond left field, Duane Kuiper presided over a panel of the two players plus special guest Will Clark. Some snippets:

On what it was like to put a Giants uniform on again, Clark said, “It’s like being back with your family.”

On the Dodgers being the team for the Giants to watch out for in the NL West, Burriss said, “If we do the things we’re capable of doing, the Dodgers should watch out for us.” To which Clark added, “Every time I see that Dodger uniform, I want to grab a bat.”

Clark on working with Ishikawa: “He’s a great first-baseman. We’re working on the mental game, knowing where the ball is going to go almost before it’s hit. ‘OK, it’s a breaking ball, it’s going to be down the line.’ ” In fact, Burriss said he whispered to Ishikawa during yesterday’s game that the signal was for a breaking ball, whereupon Ishikawa cheated toward first base and made a spectacular snag of a bullet down the line.

Asked by a little girl if they ever get tired: “According to the rookie code, I can never say I’m tired. So the answer is no – until I’m Fred’s age.”

Also on Saturday night: Across town from Mays’ house, Barry Zito was hosting his own special dinner. I’ll tell you about in my next post.

Born to Play

Eugenio Velez made one of the more spectacular plays of spring training so far – a lunging catch in left field Tuesday to preserve the Giants’ 7-6 victory over the Diamondbacks.

“I saw the ball so far from me,” Velez was quoted as saying afterward. “But if you never give up you’ve got a chance, and I never gave up.”

That’s been the story of his life. He wanted to play baseball for as long as he can remember. But he faced an almost insurmountable barrier: His mother.

Pura Eugenia Vancamper named her son after herself, and they always had a particularly close bond. She knew early on that baseball had a hold on him. When she let her three children choose a toy one day at a store, her older son chose a truck, her daughter a doll and Eugenio, still just a toddler, went straight for the plastic bat and ball. She tried to talk him into a tricycle but he insisted on the bat and ball.

Eugenio loved the game so much. He would skip school and spend the day at the park playing pick-up games with his friends. After his mother caught on to what was happening, Eugenio would secretly remove the schoolbooks from his backpack before leaving the house and replace them with his glove and baseballs.

“I wanted him to play, but I did not want him to stop going to school,” Vancamper said through an interpreter by phone from her father’s home in Washington Heights in New York. She moved there from her home in the Dominican Republic so her youngest son, now 19, could college there.

When Eugenio was 14, his mother said he had to start thinking about his future — and she told him it was not in baseball. She thought he should be an engineer. Eugenio tried to explain to her what baseball meant to him.

“I’m going to play no matter what,” he told her.

She rarely attended his games, holding onto her hopes of her son becoming an engineer. Plus, the few times she did watch him play, she was sure he was going to hurt himself the way he dove all over the place.

When Eugenio was 17, a scout for the Giants came to her with papers. They wanted to sign Eugenio to a contract. She refused. He was too young to leave, she thought. She had never been separated from any of her children.

“Mom, you have to sign,” Eugenio pleaded. “This is my life.”

She signed, then sat down and cried all night. “I knew that once he made it to the Big Leagues he would never come back,” she says. “It felt like he was being taken away from me. I was very sad, but at the same time I was happy for him because I knew that was what he wanted.”

Even now that he’s in the majors, Vancamper rarely watches her son play on television. I get very sad; especially when he runs the bases with the speed he has,” she says. “I feel like something is going to happen to him. When he bats and I see how fast the ball is thrown, I begin to worry that he is going to get hit. I can’t stand to watch, so I go to another room.”

Vancamper had worked as a babysitter in Manhattan but now Eugenio supports her and his half-brother, Adrian. Adrian plays baseball on his college team – also second base and shortstop.

“I’m really proud of him,” Adrian said by phone from New York. “I never thought that I’d have a brother playing major-league baseball. I’m really surprised. It’s really unbelievable.”

Not to Eugenio.

 

*CORRECTION 3/6/09

Thanks to fireplacet and obsessivegiantscompulsive for pointing out my error about Velez signing with the Giants. Of course he signed with the Blue Jays then was selected by the Giants in the Rule 5 draft. And he was 19 not 17. Arrgghhh. Nothing I hate more than getting my facts wrong. But you both were so kind in the way you phrased your correction. Much different, I must say, from the indignant rants I got as a sports columnist at the Chronicle a decade ago. Either society is getting kinder or the Giants simply have considerate fans. I hope it’s both, but I’m putting my money on the latter.  

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